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Across The River, Vermont Puts Its Money On Local Food

Emily Corwin

  When it comes to farming, which side of the Connecticut River you’re on makes a big difference when it comes to what kind of state resources you can access.  Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture receives almost three times as much funding from the state as New Hampshire’s Department.

This story is part of NHPR's series on New Hampshire's Local Food Economy. 

Screamin’ Ridge Farm

On his farm in Montpelier, Vermont, Joe Buley washes cucumbers by hand. “These'll all get turned into gazpacho, or chilled cucumber dill soup,” he says, hosing them down.

Once a chef and restaurant owner, Buley runs Screamin’ Ridge Farm, and what you might call a farm-to-bowl soup business.  

This year, he got a $15,000 grant from the VT state government.  He’ll spend it, he says, on a commercial potato peeler, allowing him peel potatoes faster, spending more time getting his product on shelves.  “It lets me ramp up to a capacity where the large retail customers can say okay, you're making enough we can rely on buying your product, and the price point is competitive,” he says.  He’s hoping to get his soups in grocery stores like Shaws.

Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR
Buley harvests cucumbers for gazpacho and cucumber dill soups.

  Vermont’s Farm To Plate Initiative

Just about everything that happens with food in Vermont is influenced by Farm to Plate, the state’s ten year strategic plan.  It got its start in 2007 with Vermont Senator Christopher Bray, who says the state had always been involved in its dairy industry.  But back in 2007, dairy farms were shuttering, one after another.  Bray says "I felt like we needed to step away from this very Reactive mode and say let's think about this as a system."

The Farm to Plate law was passed with $100,000 of seed money from the government. And the resulting strategic plan led to millions of dollars in state grants to people and organizations involved in local food, like the grant that will fund Farmer Joe Buley’s automatic potato peeler.

A good use of tax dollars?

You might ask whether, with a loan from traditional farm lenders, Buley could have gotten his potato peeler without spending taxpayer dollars. 

The answer is yes, he could have.  But would he have? Buley says no.

I am just not going to put my house up as collateral for a 3 percent interest loan, and just risk everything. And now I'm going to put everything I own on the line for a $10,000 loan? Farming is risky enough.

Buley says the grant leaves him with more capital to recover events like this year’s poor growing season.  That makes it easier for him to grow his business.

Of course, farming in New England is famously not very lucrative. In Vermont, 80 percent of farms make less than $50,000 in sales each year.

Why would a state invest in something with such slim profit margins? 

Vermont's Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Jolinda LaClair, says "Vermont's working landscape has a great deal to do with tourism, and tourism is our second largest revenue source."  But more important than that, LaClair says, is the fact that –surveys show – most Vermonters care deeply about the working landscape.  

And there are direct economic impacts, too. According a recent report to the Vermont Legislature, the state has seen 650 new jobs, and 300 new businesses in local food since the project got under way in 2007. 

The Mad River Food Hub

Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR
Buley looks over boxes of tomatoes.

  The Mad River Food Hub got its start 40 minutes away from Joe Buley’s farm, in Waitsfield, VT. This for-profit operation rents out a commercial kitchen, meat processing facilities, and distribution services to local businesses.  Jacob Finsen, the hub’ manager, points out a blast chiller that Joe Buley uses to freeze his soups.  It's "the opposite of a convection oven  because it's very cold,” he says.

Finsen says a blast chiller like that runs about $15,000 dollars a pop. While Mad River Food Hub’s operating costs are covered by the membership fees, it’s gotten about $44,000 in grants for equipment like it from Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture.

A model for New Hampshire?

That kind of state aid has been a tougher sell in the Live Free or Die state.

And as things are now, New Hampshire offers no grants to help farmers grow their businesses, although there are some programs through the federal government. 

Last year, New Hampshire Senator Martha Fuller Clark proposed a bill that mimics Vermont’s Farm to Plate legislation, without the $100,000 state appropriation. But there’s no consensus on whether Vermont’s approach is the right idea for New Hampshire.

Margaret McCabe  is a food policy expert and UNH professor of law. She warns that on this side of the Connecticut River, Vermont’s policies may not make as much sense. "We have Boston in our backyard," she says.  "We may be looking at manufacturing and that's a logical choice for us. I don't think Vermont really has that option."

McCabe suggests regional local food systems may need time to grow organically – no pun intended – before the state gets too involved.